“For the sake of argument. Why bother? I mean, why… why take a picture of Death?”
— Dana Scully
“So I can look into his face. So I can die. Pills don’t work. Razors… gas… bridges — I can’t tell you how many bridges I’ve jumped off of. All I get is wet. I got left behind. I don’t want to be here anymore. I can’t even remember a time when I did.” — Arthur Fellig
Scully works a case involving a crime scene photographer who has a tendency to arrive at the scene just in time to see his victims die, eventually resulting in an encounter with Death himself.
Radhika: What if you could live forever? It’s one of those questions humanity has been asking itself throughout history. While some greet the idea with enthusiasm, others consider immortality a curse. The title of this episode, “Tithonus,” is an allusion to this notion, referring to a Greek myth about a man who was immortal (though not eternally young) and eventually begged for death to come each day. And that curse of immortality is seen in this episode’s central character, Arthur Fellig, whose name is appropriately the same as that of a real-life photographer who also had a knack for arriving at crime scenes with impeccable timing.
The episode, a little more classically X-Files than the rest of season six, involves Scully splitting off to go work with New York-based Agent Peyton Ritter on a case involving a crime scene photographer who arrives at the scene of a death with slightly too perfect timing. Mulder observes that the case is an X-File and thinks that Assistant Director Kersh is working on splitting them up.
As the case continues, it turns out that Fellig is a 149-year-old man who has been trying to capture a picture of Death: If he can look Death in the face, he’ll finally be able to die. (Fellig gained his immortality while suffering from yellow fever — when Death came for him, he looked away, and a nurse was taken in his place.) In the final minutes of the episode, Fellig begins to see Scully in black and white (a sign that she is marked). Agent Ritter appears, takes aim at Fellig, and the bullet from his gun passes through Fellig’s camera, into Fellig and eventually into Scully. Fellig advises Scully to close her eyes, inevitably saving her as he finally dies.
The episode is one of my favorites — and it hardly contains any gimmicks. Yes, we observe Fellig behaving rather oddly (especially in the teaser, when he’s shooting pictures of a woman killed by a crashing elevator). And yes, the black and white effect on Scully, which then transfers to Fellig as he finally faces Death, is pretty cool. But the heart of the episode lies in the conversations between Scully and Fellig — as Scully grapples with the likelihood of Fellig’s immortality, we see her struggling with the notion of why someone would want to die. “How can you have too much life? There’s too much to learn, to experience,” she says. She also asks about love, but Fellig’s response informs her that none of it is as easy as that. “Love lasts… 75 years if you’re lucky. You don’t want to be around when it’s gone,” he says.
Of course, Scully is a character that has been on the brink of death multiple times — between abductions, cancer scares, and the unsafe line of work that she has chosen for herself. This gives her a different view of mortality, so when Fellig hints that she’s about to die, her response is angry and determined. “I’m not going to die!” she declares, demanding that Fellig turn off his camera.
And indeed she lives, echoing what she was told in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” when she asked how she would die: “You don’t.” (Both episodes of course led fans to speculate like mad that Scully was immortal.) The Scully-centric episodes do tend to turn philosophical, though usually with a Catholic bent, considering the character’s faith. This is one instance where it isn’t really about that, and it actually feels rather refreshing to explore some of the larger questions about the universe through Scully’s eyes in a different light.
Max: For as much grief as I gave last episode for being a jarring tonal shift, “Tithonus” shows us that the writers still have the goods in making absolutely powerful, moody meditations on humanity. Indeed, the “Clyde Bruckman” comparisons are apt, Bruckman and Fellig are two men cut from the same cloth, haunted by the odd paranormal “gifts” they have been bestowed with, and sadly for both men, like Bruckman said, these gifts aren’t returnable. In fact, while Bruckman found escape by killing himself, Fellig is unable to do likewise, trapped on this mortal coil, furiously chasing Death for decades.
My favorite part of the episode is when, during its second half, it practically becomes a chamber play between Scully and Fellig in his photography studio, waxing philosophical about life and death and everything that befalls man in-between. The sequence is beautifully lit, alternating between darkness and the light, shadows casting doubt in Scully’s soul.
It is telling that despite all her medical and scientific training, in which she was taught to have a clinical detachment to death (and the body before her in all those autopsies), that she clings to all the things that make life worth living. Like Radhika mentioned, Fellig rebukes these notions with a cynicism born of the agony of a life without release, the ultimate release. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift wrote of a group of immortals who sacrificed their sight to live eternally, and so it is here also that immortality comes at a heavy price.
I also appreciate Mulder’s frustrations at being cut out of the loop, as Kersh is (knowingly or not) going out of his way to rub it in his face that the kind of cases he used to work are no longer open to him. Not that this stops our intrepid G-Man, as Mulder is the one who makes the crucial link with the many identities Fellig had assumed over the years to evade detection via their common fingerprint. That little detail reminded me very much of “Squeeze,” with Tooms’ extended lifespan and tell-tale fingerprint. The episode also brought back shades of season four’s “Unruhe,” with the emphasis on photography as a kind of psychic medium. A lot of ink has been spilled about the so-called ghostly nature of photographs, and there is always the old chestnut that aboriginal tribes believe that photographs capture your soul.
There is indeed though something very potent about photography inasmuch as it can evoke such strong sense memories in people. Taking a look at a photograph of my father and I right now as I type this, I can remember all the details surrounding it, the happiness we shared, the experience of being on vacation with the family as a young kid. This kind of psychological response is quite unique, and transcends the death of those photographed. I love looking at old photos of family members whom I’ve never met, but yet there is a measure of their soul (metaphorically, at least) permanently embossed on paper, a kind of immortality. Fellig of course is too embittered to recognize or care much at all about any of this, but we get the sense that he once did, many moons ago.
Photography also has the ability to powerfully document events and communicate their import for those completely unfamiliar with their background. Scores of shots infamously chronicle atrocities much worse than Fellig ever captured, from My Lai to September 11th. And there goes that word, “shots.” There is a kind of embedded violence in the medium (something the film Blow Up took advantage of expertly), like those grisly images of the underbelly of Manhattan that the real-life Fellig took. Those are some of my favorite images, because Weegee (Fellig’s nickname) had an innate understanding of the pitfalls and promise of the human condition.
This is the kind of struggle Scully was grappling with inside of Fellig’s studio, as he was preparing to chase Death yet again. Vince Gilligan wrote this episode, and this (along with “Milagro” later this season) are some of his finest efforts. The X-Files proves it still has what it takes in this episode, and it is a sublime pleasure to watch every time.
YES, IT’S THOSE GUYS
Geoffrey Lewis – Appearing here as Arthur Fellig, Lewis is a character actor who has had a long career in TV and movies since the 1970s. He’s been in everything from shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and My Name is Earl to movies like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He is the father of actress Juliette Lewis.
Richard Ruccolco – Appearing here as Agent Peyton Ritter, Ruccolco may be best known for his role on the sitcom Two Guys and a Girl (originally Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place). He has since been in episodes of Reba, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Desperate Housewives.